Commons skirmish over incinerator proposals in Surrey

Public opposition to three proposed municipal waste incinerators in Surrey received an airing in the House of Commons on 14 November, when a local MP claimed that the projects were being forced on the county by over-strict application of the "proximity principle" and would prejudice alternative ways of reducing landfilling.

The debate is likely to be repeated many times over as the UK attempts to meet its EC obligations to reduce landfilling of biodegradable waste over the next 20 years.

In Surrey, proposals for two municipal incinerators, at Redhill and Capel, have been put forward by waste giant SITA and a third, near Guildford, by Thames Waste (ENDS Report 309, pp 22-24 ).

Nick St Aubyn, Conservative MP for Guildford, said that the proposals have stirred up a "very high level of public concern". Almost 10,000 letters have been sent to Surrey County Council and 7,000 to the Environment Agency about the Guildford project alone.

Mr St Aubyn argued that "the Government [sic] would not propose to build a giant smokestack in the middle of a historic county town such as Guildford?were it not for the single argument - which is repeated time and again - that that would deal with the waste where it is produced."

"Is the proximity principle so important to the Government," the MP asked, "that building incinerators in urban areas overrides other normal planning considerations? Does it make sense to build a plant that will dominate the skyline of our county town with a chimney that is higher than Guildford cathedral?"

Mr St Aubyn probed the Government further about the proximity principle. The Guildford plant, he noted, has a proposed capacity of 200,000 tonnes per year - yet this was six times the amount of waste produced "locally".

Moreover, he argued, the proximity principle is unenforceable. Once the plant was built, it would not be planning but commercial pressures which dictated where it obtained its waste.

Equally, the principle was not being applied even-handedly. Surrey, the MP noted, imports a great deal of waste to landfill. So the principle "does not apply to landfill, where we suffer, but apparently it will be applied to incineration, where we might have other alternatives on our doorstep."

One such alternative lies a few miles across the county boundary in Colnbrook, where waste business Grundon already has planning consent for a 400,000 tonnes per year incinerator and is "keen to take Surrey's residual incineration requirement". Mr St Aubyn wanted to know whether the Government would be prepared to accommodate this idea - while still allowing Surrey to retain its financial support for implementing the national waste strategy, which he put at £100 million.

Describing reliance on incineration as a flawed policy which would pre-empt other options such as recycling, Mr St Aubyn attacked the Government for its "plan" for 75 incinerators in England. He quoted a recent prediction by the Energy from Waste Association that no more than 15 new incinerators will be needed in England by 2010 - though the Association has also argued this summer that some 40 new plants could be built in the same period to help meet the Government's target for renewable energy (ENDS Report 308, pp 36-37 ).

Junior Environment Minister Chris Mullin chided the MP, saying that "the tone of [his] speech and his mock indignation come ill from a member of a party which, when in government for many years, was - to put it mildly - lethargic in its approach to recycling." It was also "utterly false" to suggest that the Government had a plan for 75 incinerators.

The Government, he said, was committed to "dramatic" increases in recycling and composting. It also wanted local authorities and incineration businesses "to plan to ensure that expansion in securing energy from waste does not crowd out recycling. Contracts should allow flexibility and ensure that incineration does not compete with recycling."

However, recycling and composting on their own would not deliver the EC targets for diverting waste from landfill, and energy-from-waste plants had a role where they represented the best practicable environmental option. "There are some problems with the public perception of the issue," the Minister suggested, "and it is the job of responsible politicians not to whip up misunderstanding or to seek cheap votes but to help confront the public with stark choices."

No one, said Mr Mullin, was forcing an incinerator on Guildford, since "how waste is disposed of is a matter for local decision" - though in fact Ministers may have a hand if incinerator applications are referred to them. Indeed, Mr Mullin cited the need to maintain a neutral stance on the Guildford incinerator in case it was referred to his Department as the reason for declining to say whether Surrey could keep its £100 million in waste strategy funding if it chose not to proceed with incineration.

On the proximity principle, the Minister said that the Government was looking only for regional self-sufficiency in waste management capacity, and this did not preclude waste movements across local authority boundaries. Moreover, the principle "would not overrule other planning rules," though it would be a material planning consideration.

He appeared to concede, however, that planning permissions could not be used to limit the distance over which waste could be brought to an incinerator.

The Minister closed with a comment apparently directed at the citizens of Surrey which masqueraded as a layman's interpretation of the proximity principle: "that Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph readers cannot expect that their waste will be disposed of in the back yards of Sun and Mirror readers. We expect the people who produce the waste to take some responsibility for its disposal."

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